A Dark Past

by Jonah Goldberg

Contraception, abortion, and the eugenics movement.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Liberal Fascism.

Margaret Sanger, whose American Birth Control League became Planned Parenthood, was the founding mother of the birth-control movement. She is today considered a liberal saint, a founder of modern feminism, and one of the leading lights of the Progressive pantheon. Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood proclaims, “I stand by Margaret Sanger’s side,” leading “the organization that carries on Sanger’s legacy.” Planned Parenthood’s first black president, Faye Wattleton — Ms. magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 1989 — said that she was “proud” to be “walking in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger.” Planned Parenthood gives out annual Maggie Awards to individuals and organizations who advance Sanger’s cause. Recipients are a Who’s Who of liberal icons, from the novelist John Irving to the producers of NBC’s West Wing. What Sanger’s liberal admirers are eager to downplay is that she was a thoroughgoing racist who subscribed completely to the views of E. A. Ross and other “raceologists.” Indeed, she made many of them seem tame.

Sanger was born into a poor family of eleven children in Corning, New York, in 1879. In 1902 she received her degree as a registered nurse. In 1911 she moved to New York City, where she fell in with the transatlantic bohemian avant-garde of the burgeoning fascist moment. “Our living-room,” she wrote in her autobiography, “became a gathering place where liberals, anarchists, Socialists and I.W.W.’s could meet.” A member of the Women’s Committee of the New York Socialist Party, she participated in all the usual protests and demonstrations. In 1912 she started writing what amounted to a sex-advice column for the New York Call, dubbed “What Every Girl Should Know.” The overriding theme of her columns was the importance of contraception.

A disciple of the anarchist Emma Goldman — another eugenicist — Sanger became the nation’s first “birth control martyr” when she was arrested for handing out condoms in 1917. In order to escape a subsequent arrest for violating obscenity laws, she went to England, where she fell under the thrall of Havelock Ellis, a sex theorist and ardent advocate of forced sterilization. She also had an affair with H. G. Wells, the self-avowed champion of “liberal fascism.” Her marriage fell apart early, and one of her children — whom she admitted to neglecting — died of pneumonia at age four. Indeed, she always acknowledged that she wasn’t right for family life, admitting she was not a “fit person for love or home or children or anything which needs attention or consideration.”

Under the banner of “reproductive freedom,” Sanger subscribed to nearly all of the eugenic views discussed above. She sought to ban reproduction of the unfit and regulate reproduction for everybody else. She scoffed at the soft approach of the “positive” eugenicists, deriding it as mere “cradle competition” between the fit and the unfit. “More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control,” she frankly wrote in her 1922 book The Pivot of Civilization. (The book featured an introduction by Wells, in which he proclaimed, “We want fewer and better children…and we cannot make the social life and the world-peace we are determined to make, with the ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens that you inflict on us.” Two civilizations were at war: that of progress and that which sought a world “swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny.”

A fair-minded person cannot read Sanger’s books, articles, and pamphlets today without finding similarities not only to Nazi eugenics but to the dark dystopias of the feminist imagination found in such allegories as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. As editor of The Birth Control Review, Sanger regularly published the sort of hard racists we normally associate with Goebbels or Himmler. Indeed, after she resigned as editor, The Birth Control Review ran articles by people who worked for Goebbels and Himmler. For example, when the Nazi eugenics program was first getting wide attention, The Birth Control Review was quick to cast the Nazis in a positive light, giving over its pages for an article titled “Eugenic Sterilization: An Urgent Need,” by Ernst Rüdin, Hitler’s director of sterilization and a founder of the Nazi Society for Racial Hygiene. In 1926 Sanger proudly gave a speech to a KKK rally in Silver Lake, New Jersey.

One of Sanger’s closest friends and influential colleagues was the white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. In the book he offered his solution for the threat posed by the darker races: “Just as we isolate bacterial invasions, and starve out the bacteria, by limiting the area and amount of their food supply, so we can compel an inferior race to remain in its native habitat.” When the book came out, Sanger was sufficiently impressed to invite him to join the board of directors of the American Birth Control League.

Sanger’s genius was to advance Ross’s campaign for social control by hitching the racist-eugenic campaign to sexual pleasure and female liberation. In her “Code to Stop Overproduction of Children,” published in 1934, she decreed that “no woman shall have a legal right to bear a child without a permit…no permit shall be valid for more than one child.”47 But Sanger couched this fascistic agenda in the argument that “liberated” women wouldn’t mind such measures because they don’t really want large families in the first place. In a trope that would be echoed by later feminists such as Betty Friedan, she argued that motherhood itself was a socially imposed constraint on the liberty of women. It was a form of what Marxists called false consciousness to want a large family.

Sanger believed — prophetically enough — that if women conceived of sex as first and foremost a pleasurable experience rather than a procreative act, they would embrace birth control as a necessary tool for their own personal gratification. She brilliantly used the language of liberation to convince women they weren’t going along with a collectivist scheme but were in fact “speaking truth to power,” as it were. This was the identical trick the Nazis pulled off. They took a radical Nietzschean doctrine of individual will and made it into a trendy dogma of middle-class conformity. This trick remains the core of much faddish “individualism” among rebellious conformists on the American cultural left today. Nonetheless, Sanger’s analysis was surely correct, and led directly to the widespread feminist association of sex with political rebellion. Sanger in effect “bought off” women (and grateful men) by offering tolerance for promiscuity in return for compliance with her eugenic schemes.

In 1939 Sanger created the above-mentioned “Negro Project,” which aimed to get blacks to adopt birth control. Through the Birth Control Federation, she hired black ministers (including the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr.), doctors, and other leaders to help pare down the supposedly surplus black population. The project’s racist intent is beyond doubt. “The mass of significant Negroes,” read the project’s report, “still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes…is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit.” Sanger’s intent is shocking today, but she recognized its extreme radicalism even then. “We do not want word to go out,” she wrote to a colleague, “that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

It is possible that Sanger didn’t really want to “exterminate” the Negro population so much as merely limit its growth. Still, many in the black community saw it that way and remained rightly suspicious of the Progressives’ motives. It wasn’t difficult to see that middle-class whites who consistently spoke of “race suicide” at the hands of dark, subhuman savages might not have the best interests of blacks in mind. This skepticism persisted within the black community for decades. Someone who saw the relationship between abortion and race from a less trusting perspective telegrammed Congress in 1977 to tell them that abortion amounted to “genocide against the black race.” And he added, in block letters, “AS A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE I MUST OPPOSE THE USE OF FEDERAL FUNDS FOR A POLICY OF KILLING INFANTS.” This was Jesse Jackson, who changed his position when he decided to seek the Democratic nomination.

Just a few years ago, the racial eugenic “bonus” of abortion rights was something one could only admit among those fully committed to the cause, and even then in politically correct whispers. No more. Increasingly, this argument is acceptable on the left, as are arguments in favor of eugenics generally.

In 2005 the acclaimed University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt broke the taboo with his critical and commercial hit Freakonomics (co-written with Stephen Dubner). The most sensational chapter in the book updated a paper Levitt had written in 1999 which argued that abortion cuts crime. “Legalized abortion led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime.” Freakonomics excised all references to race and never connected the facts that because the aborted fetuses were disproportionately black and blacks disproportionately contribute to the crime rate, reducing the size of the black population reduces crime. Yet the press coverage acknowledged this and didn’t seem to mind.

In 2005 William Bennett, a committed pro-lifer, invoked the Levitt argument in order to denounce eugenic thinking. “I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could — if that were your sole purpose — you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.” What seemed to offend liberals most was that Bennett had accidentally borrowed some conventional liberal logic to make a conservative point, and, as with the social Darwinists of yore, that makes liberals quite cross. According to the New York Times’s Bob Herbert, Bennett believed “exterminating blacks would be a most effective crime-fighting tool.” Various liberal spokesmen, including Terry McAuliffe, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, said Bennett wanted to exterminate “black babies.” Juan Williams proclaimed that Bennett’s remarks speak “to a deeply racist mindset.”

In one sense, this is a pretty amazing turnaround. After all, when liberals advocate them, we are usually told that abortions do not kill “babies.” Rather, they remove mere agglomerations of cells and tissue or “uterine contents.” If hypothetical abortions committed for allegedly conservative ends are infanticide, how can actual abortions performed for liberal ends not be?

Some liberals are honest about this. In 1992 Nicholas Von Hoffman argued in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Free cheap abortion is a policy of social defense. To save ourselves from being murdered in our beds and raped on the streets, we should do everything possible to encourage pregnant women who don’t want the baby and will not take care of it to get rid of the thing before it turns into a monster… At their demonstration, the anti-abortionists parade around with pictures of dead and dismembered fetuses. The pro-abortionists should meet these displays with some of their own: pictures of the victims of the unaborted — murder victims, rape victims, mutilation victims — pictures to remind us that the fight for abortion is but part of the larger struggle for safe homes and safe streets.

Later that same year, the White House received a letter from the Roe v. Wade co-counsel Ron Weddington, urging the new president-elect to rush RU-486 — the morning-after pill — to the market as quickly as possible. Weddington’s argument was refreshingly honest:

[Y]ou can start immediately to eliminate the barely educated, unhealthy and poor segment of our country. No, I’m not advocating some sort of mass extinction of these unfortunate people. Crime, drugs and disease are already doing that. The problem is that their numbers are not only replaced but increased by the birth of millions of babies to people who can’t afford to have babies. There, I’ve said it. It’s what we all know is true, but we only whisper it, because as liberals who believe in individual rights, we view any program which might treat the disadvantaged as discriminatory, mean-spirited and… well… so Republican.

[G]overnment is also going to have to provide vasectomies, tubal ligations and abortions. . , . There have been about 30 million abortions in this country since Roe v. Wade. Think of all the poverty, crime and misery . . . and then add 30 million unwanted babies to the scenario. We lost a lot of ground during the Reagan-Bush religious orgy. We don’t have a lot of time left.

How, exactly, is this substantively different from Margaret Sanger’s self-described “religion of birth control,” which would, she wrote, “ease the financial load of caring for with public funds . . . children destined to become a burden to themselves, to their family, and ultimately to the nation”?

The issue here is not the explicit intent of liberals or the rationalizations they invoke to deceive themselves about the nature of abortion. Rather, it is to illustrate that even when motives and arguments change, the substance of the policy remains in its effects. After the Holocaust discredited eugenics per se, neither the eugenicists nor their ideas disappeared. Rather, they went to ground in fields like family planning and demography and in political movements such as feminism. Indeed, in a certain sense Planned Parenthood is today more eugenic than Sanger intended. Sanger, after all, despised abortion. She denounced it as “barbaric” and called abortionists “bloodsucking men with M.D. after their names.” Abortion resulted in “an outrageous slaughter” and “the killing of babies,” which even the degenerate offspring of the unfit did not deserve.

So forget about intent: Look at results. Abortion ends more black lives than heart disease, cancer, accidents, AIDS, and violent crime combined. African Americans constitute little more than 12 percent of the population but have more than a third (37 percent) of abortions. That rate has held relatively constant, though in some regions the numbers are much starker; in Mississippi, black women receive some 72 percent of all abortions, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nationwide, 512 out of every 1,000 black pregnancies end in an abortion. Revealingly enough, roughly 80 percent of Planned Parenthood’s abortion centers are in or near minority communities. Liberalism today condemns a Bill Bennett who speculates about the effects of killing unborn black children; but it also celebrates the actual killing of unborn black children, and condemns him for opposing it.

Of course, orthodox eugenics also aimed at the “feebleminded” and “useless bread gobblers” — which included everyone from the mentally retarded to an uneducated and malnourished underclass to recidivist criminals. When it comes to today’s “feebleminded,” influential voices on the left now advocate the killing of “defectives” at the beginning of life and at the end of life. Chief among them is Peter Singer, widely hailed as the most important living philosopher and the world’s leading ethicist. Professor Singer, who teaches at Princeton, argues that unwanted or disabled babies should be killed in the name of “compassion.” He also argues that the elderly and other drags on society should be put down when their lives are no longer worth living.

Singer doesn’t hide behind code words and euphemisms in his belief that killing babies isn’t always wrong, as one can deduce from his essay titled “Killing Babies Isn’t Always Wrong” (nor is he a lone voice in the wilderness; his views are popular or respected in many academic circles). But that hasn’t caused the Left to ostracize him in the slightest (save in Germany, where people still have a visceral sense of where such logic takes you). Of course, not all or even most liberals agree with Singer’s prescriptions, but nor do they condemn him as they do, say, a William Bennett. Perhaps they recognize in him a kindred spirit.

– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism.